On Wednesday night, the Montpelier City Council voted unanimously to de-criminalize emergency camping on public property in the city.
The policy acknowledges that, because of a lack of affordable housing and shelter bed, some people have no choice but to camp outdoors. It also states that it’s not a long-term solution to homelessness, but a short-term measure to help the city navigate an immediate crisis of affordable housing.
Montpelier city employees who find an encampment on public land must notify, via email, several city departments, including the police and City Manager Bill Fraser’s office, to determine how to respond. If a camp is in a high-sensitivity area, everyone will be asked to move within 24 hours and be connected with overnight shelters at no charge. After 24 hours, camps are subject to removal by city staff.
During a meeting Tuesday night, the Montpelier Parks Commission asked for some changes to the policy before council approval. Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer said those requests included “making sure that we add the Parks Commission on the list of city staff and Conservation Commission, asking if they could weigh in on any decisions.”
The other councilors agreed, approving the policy with the changes the requested changes.
“The Parks Commission went from saying that camping shouldn’t be done in any park to offering these suggestions, which isn’t a full endorsement, but I think it’s a reasonable compromise,” Councilor Conor Casey said.
One man wondered if a piece of infrastructure at Burlington’s City Hall Park that serves vulnerable residents in the Queen City can be adapted to fit Montpelier.
“Burlington has constructed a public restroom facility with a water fountain, a hand-washing station and someone comes in and restocks it with toilet paper in the evenings,” Seth Collins said. “I don’t know if it’s possible here, but maybe something like that could be done.”
Mayor Anne Watson told him that Montpelier is working on developing a public restroom facility.
Steve Whitaker. a former member of the city’s Homelessness Task Force, said the new policy accomplishes the goal of letting people in emergency encampments know what they can expect. However, he said the policy is unfair to the city’s most at-risk residents.
“It creates this kind of Whack-A-Mole where the folks that are affected are unaware of the meaning, so it’s trial and error — get moved, get moved, get moved,” Whitaker said.